Over the last few years, I watched, skeptical, as the environmental community turned its back on almond milk. The popular dairy alternative quickly went from blessing to bane.
Why the sudden condemnation? Almond production, a growing industry, requires a whole lot of water in the midst of a severe nationwide drought that is hitting California particularly hard. Nearly 100% of almonds are grown in California and, according to Slate, the industry consumes 10% of California’s freshwater supply. This, in a state that also grows more than 50% of our nation’s fruits and vegetables, clearly warranted a closer look.
Unfortunately, while almond milk has been widely besmirched, no article I came across truly substantiated its denunciation with a proper quantitative comparison of water footprints between almond milk and cow’s milk, the reigning milk of choice in the American household for which almond milk was meant to serve as a substitute. Instead, what I’ve seen has been a series of high-level, superficial overviews of the almond industry as a whole and disjointed statistics that loosely pass for an argument against growing almonds, broadly.
What they lack, and what many arguments like this lack in the media, are complementary facts that support a focused argument. The strange thing is that this simple issue — that of merely reporting water consumption — didn’t require much digging to address.
The truth is that, while almonds require a lot of water — about 1.1 gallons per almond1 — almond milk does not. Eating almonds and almond butter certainly bears a hefty footprint, but so few whole almonds are used in a bottle of almond milk that almond milk’s footprint is not actually very large. In fact, it is drastically lower than cow’s milk’s footprint.
Let’s take it back to 5th grade math class.
According to the EPA, one gallon of cow’s milk requires 1000 gallons of water to produce2 (that includes the “virtual water” used to grow a dairy cow’s feed). One gallon of cow’s milk weighs 8.6 pounds,3 so you simply divide 1000 by 8.6 to find that 116 gallons of water are required per pound of cow’s milk. Pretty straightforward.
For almond milk, I will consider Califia, a popular almond milk brand. Undoubtedly, not all bottles of almond milk are created equal, but I think we can safely assume they’re similar enough.
While I couldn’t find an internal industry source stating the number of almonds in a bottle of almond milk, two separate sources provided a similar estimate of about 28 grams of almonds per 48-ounce bottle.4 The first compared the nutrition facts of a 48-ounce bottle of Califia to 28 grams of almonds and found them to be nearly identical. This should pass for a suitable estimate given that the rest of almond milk is almost entirely water, which, while the most important molecule for life on Earth, is literally immaterial when it comes to nutritional substance. The second cited a study of the UK almond milk brand Alpro, which discovered that almonds make up only about 2% of this vexed drink — 2% of 48 ounces is almost 1 ounce, which is exactly 28 grams.
One almond averages to about 1.2 grams (given that 23 whole almonds equal one ounce5) so a 48-ounce bottle requires 23.3 almonds. Let’s call it 24 for kicks. There are 16 ounces in a pound, so a 48-ounce bottle weighs three pounds. Divide 24 almonds by three, and you find that one pound of almond milk requires 8 almonds.
Recall that growing one almond requires 1.1 gallons of water. Therefore, 8 almonds, the number of almonds used in one pound of almond milk, require 8.8 gallons of water.
Just one more step! To thoroughly convince the skeptics, we should include the amount of water that’s mixed with the almonds to make the milk itself. This number is likely to disappoint, however, as it’s negligible.
If a 48-ounce bottle of almond milk has 28 grams of almonds, there is exactly one ounce of almonds in the bottle given that one ounce is exactly 28 grams. That leaves almost 47 ounces of added water (considering other minor ingredients like salt, thickeners, and smoothing agents). One gallon equals 128 ounces, so 47 ounces equals 0.367 gallons. Let’s call it an even 0.4. It really won’t make a difference.
This brings us to a total of about 9.2 gallons of water required per pound of almond milk.
To make the comparison explicit: one pound of cow’s milk requires 116 gallons of water and one pound of almond milk requires 9.2 gallons of water.
Cow’s milk’s footprint is greater by almost a factor of thirteen.
Thus, almond milk, at least in the way it is currently produced, is irrefutably far less water-intensive than cow’s milk. End of story.
To argue whether you should or should not drink almond milk or cow’s milk is an entirely separate issue that would take much longer to address, as there are many other factors we’d have to examine — certainly far more than anyone has in a single article I’ve seen to date.
Relevant issues include the economic value of various commodities to farmers and our nation, geographical differences in water footprints (whether the feed used to nourish dairy cows was grown in California or somewhere else), comparative values of drought-stricken regions, nutritional values of milk alternatives, percent of products exported abroad, land put under cultivation to support production of various products, and so on.
Alas, this is the conundrum we face in today’s world whenever we attempt to fulfill our duty as “conscious” consumers. It’s hard enough, as it is, to collect sufficient information to make an educated choice when considering a single decision. To acquire this information at every turn would require an obsessive commitment to rigorous investigation that would all but preclude one’s ability to pursue any other activity.
And even when you do acquire sufficient information (or think you have), it’s not as if the answer immediately becomes lucid. Most of the time, the issue just gets more complicated as you dive deeper. At first, your intention might simply be to compare water footprints, but upon looking closer you discover there’s an issue of social justice involved, or an economic issue concerning the livelihood of farmers.
How does one make an appropriate trade-off between two important environmental or social impacts? It’s often like comparing apples and oranges, especially if you truly care about both impacts. There’s never an easy answer.
Then there’s the issue of misinformation, or half-truths. Even when you think you’ve found an answer, so often you discover it was only a part-truth, or a white lie.
How sad the state of affairs of contemporary society that we have been so universally hoodwinked by major institutions and corporations that our default assumption is we are always being deceived, misled, or disrespected in some way. Yet this assumption has been substantiated time and time again.
Did you know that, legally, a producer can label bread “whole wheat” so long as 51% or more of the grains constituting the bread are whole grains? The other 49% can be enriched, processed garbage. The only way you can be certain your bread is comprised of 100% whole grains is if the label literally spells out “100% whole wheat”.
It’s difficult to comprehend the low to which we’ve stooped when a company is legally permitted to communicate to millions of people a message that isn’t 100% true when, by its public nature and implicit association with authority as the label on a food product, it will undoubtedly be taken by most of the general public as having the purpose of characterizing, truthfully, the product upon which it is printed.
How much integrity do we sacrifice when a qualitative statement on a consumer product is meant only to be taken as 100% of the truth when supplementally labeled with the qualifier “100%”?
How stupid are we, really?
Despite these obscurities, one thing we know for certain, right now: you can comfortably drink almond milk as a substitute for cow’s milk if water scarcity, generally, is your priority.
I hope this settles that lone issue.
4 a) http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/07/lay-off-almond-milk-ignorant-hipsters b) http://althealthworks.com/5907/how-many-almonds-does-your-almond-milk-actually-contain-industry-insiders-shocking-admission/